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February 19, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 11

Despite Virus Scares, No Turning Back on Technology

Faculty and staff more willing to embrace risks, rewards of computers

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

During the transfer of University e-mail accounts to a new server a few years ago, Information Technology Executive Director Mary Corcoran encountered a rare pocket of resistance to the academic technology revolution.

A faculty member scheduled for the migration of his account apparently decided that, thanks very much, he would be fine without it, recalled Corcoran. "He asked us if, instead of switching it, we could just 'lose' his e-mail," she said. The request was politely declined.

Whether the faculty member considers his recalcitrance vindicated by Boston College's recent e-mail woes, courtesy of the so-called "MyDoom" virus, is unknown. Nor can it be determined if others in the BC community were unnerved enough by this latest Internet epidemic to forsake computers in favor of old-fashioned typewriters or pen and paper.

But Corcoran and other Information Technology administrators believe it unlikely that such Luddism endures at the Heights. Whatever previous hesitation, even reluctance, there might have been in the University community about embracing technology has largely faded, they say. For better or worse, in virus and in health, BC administrators, faculty and staff are using computer and Internet technology for teaching, research, management, clerical and other work-related purposes to a far greater degree than a decade ago.

"Talking to people at BC about technology in the past, even e-mail, I think they would get overwhelmed," said Corcoran. "But the technology revolution has come for many of these same people, and they feel liberated."

Corcoran cites several factors for this institutional sea change, including the improvement of computer technology itself and its gradual proliferation into daily life. The turnover in the workforce over time at BC, as elsewhere, she adds, has resulted in a growing number of employees and faculty who readily accept technology as a critical tool rather than an occasionally used, and dreaded, device.

"Business practice has changed considerably since the 1990s," Corcoran said. "IT used to struggle to try and make technology seem a meaningful part of the workplace. It's a given now that most of our communication will be electronic, so people know they have to grasp at least the basics of using e-mail or the Internet to be successful."

Adj. Assoc. Prof. Richard Spinello (CSOM), an expert on technology-related ethics, said, "E-mail has too much momentum and has become an essential for so many people and organizations that even the Luddites have to go along."

Associate Academic Vice President for Technology Rita Owens says the growing popularity of the WebCT course management system is one indicator of how BC is integrating technology into its academic and administrative operations. Barely three years ago, less than 5 percent of University courses had a WebCT component; this semester, the percentage is more than 25, and includes every course in the Graduate School of Social Work.

If BC faculty and staff are no longer as wary about computers, say IT administrators, that does not lessen the potential harm of MyDoom and other virus scares, nor mask larger issues surrounding campus technology.

MyDoom began invading BC last month, swamping e-mail servers with virus messages but infecting a relatively small number of computers on campus - as few as 60, as of late last week. The IT department issued campus-wide warnings and, after identifying those users whose computers were infected, outlined steps for disinfecting their machines and gave them a time frame in which to do so before they were disconnected from the campus network.

"We were expecting a panic, but it didn't happen," said Corcoran. "From our perspective, we tried to keep things running as normally as possible. We didn't have to shut down the e-mail system, and instead of automatically disconnecting people from the network we first tried to get them the help they needed."

With e-mail and other forms of computer technology having gained wide acceptance in the academic community, say BC technology experts, a major task for institutions like BC is less proselytizing about technology's rewards and more about its risks.

"What you hear is anger and concern about naïve users who continue to open attachments from unknown sources," Spinello said. "There is a growing backlash against users who are careless about security despite repeated warnings."

Corcoran said, "Viruses have become a lot more insidious. Instead of simply incapacitating your computer, they're likely to use it to go after a whole network, and so you may not be experiencing any obvious difficulties at all. That can make it hard to convince people to take virus warnings seriously, because everything sounds so technical, and they're apt to think, 'What does this mean? Why should I care?' But the costs of analyzing virus-related problems and of lost productivity, among other things, can be quite high.

"This is a challenge for us as a university, because we seek to maintain an open computer environment. A corporation usually controls its employees' desktops, and will shut them off if they think there is sufficient reason. We want to respect the openness we've encouraged here, but we also want to provide a safe, secure network. How do we balance the two?

"One answer might be for more steps to be taken at the Internet and manufacturer levels to improve virus protection, instead of relying on the end-user as the fix. But we will certainly continue to educate and work with everyone in the BC community to understand what their roles and responsibilities are as users in the campus network system."

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